What is "Food Sovereignty" and why does it matter?

What exactly is food sovereignty?

Broadly defined food sovereignty is "the right of nations and peoples to control their own food systems, including their own markets, production modes, food cultures and environments"(1). The principles of food sovereignty really gained traction thanks to the efforts of La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement for food sovereignty that that began in 1993. The passionate people behind La Via Campesina (including a local hero on this topic- Netty Weibe) compiled a declaration of peasant rights stating that food should be seen first in terms of health, and only after the health of the population is met, should we consider food for trade.

How does this relate to the health of the local population?

The following is a discussion which offers suggestions regarding how our food system impacts health equity. Adopting food sovereignty principles in Canada can help reposition our food system to prioritize equal access to healthy foods, empowering individuals to make informed health choices. By looking to food sovereignty pioneers internationally, Canadians can move towards adopting grass-roots changes that better meet the needs of our local populations. Small food sovereignty-based approaches, such as The Local Kitchen, offer a good starting point to influence the large-scale economic and political structures through population feedback.

Where do we begin?

During the late 1980's the Canadian food system shifted to what is call a "neolibral" approach. Neoliberalism is a bit complex but, at its core, it means to remove barriers to trade, increase privatization and minimal government involvements to allow for maximum trade and profits.  This approach proved to be very successful in terms of its economic endeavours. Canadian exports more than doubled between 1990 and 1999 (2). The agri-food sector accounted for 8.3 percent of the total Canadian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2000, compared with only 3 percent in 1990 (3).

However, the gains from this economic growth are not seen by the Canadian farmers themselves but rather this system placed the ownership, control and profit in the hands of a few powerful corporations.

On top of this, the globalized food system distanced eaters from how their food is produced as well as from the places where their food is produced. This disconnect between the consumer and production alters the relationships that people, families and communities have with food.  This breakdown of food knowledge strips the community of cultural connections with food, as well as the empowerment of food knowledge and even appreciation of daily food experiences. Significantly, this disconnect undermines the individual’s capacity and power for effective consumer choices and consequently undermines one's ability to make informed health choices.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the current food system is falling short in terms of Canadian health outcomes, largely because the system is predicated on a profit model, not a health model.

While the goal of neoliberalism was to ensure a large quantity of food to feed the globe’s growing population, these policies have actually contributed to widespread food insecurities and vulnerabilities. Over one billion people in the world are currently suffering from hunger (4), and approximately twelve percent of Canadians experienced food insecurity at some point in the last year. On the other end of the spectrum, non-communicable diseases associated with over-consumption of poor quality food have increased dramatically. Obesity-related conditions, including heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, are some of the leading causes of preventable death (6). These facts provide clear evidence that even in its goal to create a surplus to feed a growing population, the neoliberal movement is a failure (5)

Traditionally health outcomes were perceived as resulting from individual factors. In contrast, food sovereignty shifts the blame to the structural barriers and examines intersectionalities that may undermine an individual’s ability to access safe, healthy, and adequate food such as colonialism, age and gender related inequalities (7). A foundational aspect of food sovereignty is the right of communities to have a meaningful say in how their food system is structured (8).

Where do we go from here?

Adapting food sovereignty principles does not come without its challenges. A complete overhaul of our national food system is not going to happen overnight and we need to be very mindful as we do make changes.

The first step in the process of changing the system is to raise awareness of the relationship between the food system and health. As we work to restructure the system we need to move carefully and involve multiple generations, genders and ethnic backgrounds in the process. Part of the value of the industrialized and processed food system was that it freed up time for women to leave the kitchen and the garden to engage in meaningful employment and education. As we restructure our food system we need to be mindful to bring entire families into the equation and make food acquisition and preparation a shared responsibility.

We also need to involve indigenous communities in the conversation about restructuring our food system. Not only are indigenous peoples disproportionately affected by food-related illness in Canada but many indigenous communities have a deep knowledge of local climates and living food systems. Despite being initially discounted during Canadian colonialism, the knowledge and practices of Indigenous food systems are crucial for the long-term sustainability of our fragile and threatened ecosystems (9).

It may seem overwhelming to get started, however, if we look to food sovereignty success stories in other countries, we may be able to adopt some leading practices that could be helpful in our little corner of the world.

Many of these international movements involve direct relationships between farmers and consumers. The Agricultura Nuova initiative in Rome, and the Agroecology movement in Cuba, are two examples where the health and local economy of a community were improved through allowing for direct communications between producers and consumers. This connection allows income generation to stay directly in the community, it facilitates social connectedness and can provide better quality food for the local residents. We hope The Local Kitchen can become one of these important points of connection in our community.

The Local Kitchen will be a space where individuals can meet local producers, collaborate on food products and learn from each other in formal and informal settings, improving the health and economic independence of our community.

Food sovereignty and health equity share core commitments to long-term systemic change, democratic participation, examining power imbalances, and equalizing access to safe and healthy food. We are excited by the possibilities in our vibrant community, being situated so close to multiple producers, and hope to be a future meeting place for producers and consumers in Saskatoon.

References:

  1. Wittman, Desmarais, Wiebe. (2009). The origins and potential of food sovereignty. Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature and CommunityFernwood Publishing. P. 1 – 14 Retrieved from: http://fernwoodpublishing.ca/files/foodsovereignty.pdf
  2. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. (2001). Challenges facing Canadian agriculture: Overview of the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector. Government of Canada. Retrieved from
  3. Food and Argiculture Organization. (2014). The FAO hunger map. Unite Nations. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/hunger/en/
  4. Tarasuk , Dachner , Loopstra , (2014) Food banks, welfare, and food insecurity in Canada. British Food Journal, Vol. 116, p. 1405 – 1417. Retrieved from: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/BFJ-02-2014-0077?journalCode=bfj
  5. Statistics Canada. (2015). Obesity. Government of Canada. Retrieved from: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/help/bb/info/obesity
  6. Dixon, Omwega, Friel, Burns, Donati, Carlisle. (April, 2007). The health equity dimension of urban food systems. Journal and Urban Health. p. 11-129. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1891642/
  7. Wiebe and Wipf. (2011). Nurturing food sovereignty in Canada. Food sovereignty in Canada creating just and sustainable food systems. Fernwood Publishing. P 1 – 19. Retrieved from: http://fernwoodpublishing.ca/book/food-sovereignty-in-canada
  8. Desmarais, Weibe, Wittman. (September 2011). Food sovereignty in Canada: creating just ad sustainable food systems. Fernwood Publishing, Canada. p. 1-14